Morals and Atheism
July 25, 2010 § 34 Comments
Believers in god often ask “Where do morals come from?” They expect the answer to be “from God”, mostly because they can’t imagine that something so much at the heart of human interaction can have risen naturally.
Well the answer is reasonably simple, but long. So let me see if I can be as brief as possible with this.
As I understand it, morals and empathy all come from the same place, as survival mechanisms. Bear with me a moment and I’ll explain.
Survival mechanisms exist within every plant and animal in the world. In humans, it is highly evolved, from the simple sensation such as feeling pain to conserve the body, on to external mechanisms such as ones that conserve the family unit or the tribe. Our survival mechanisms, as in many other animal species, aim to preserve the species, starting with the individual, then to the family, then the community.
Because we are intelligent enough to recognise pain and suffering within ourselves, and we do not want it, we are also able to suppose those same feelings onto others. And we also have, through our evolution, the ability to imagine things, such as the pain and suffering of others in Sudan or Ethiopia.
So as you can see, what once started out as mechanistic responses to stimuli with the purpose of preserving the individual have, over millions of years, developed into what we now call empathy.
Morals are just the application of these feelings and natural responses to the environment around us. People tend to think of morals as universal, but unfortunately they are not, the are objectively linked to the cultural, societal and religious impositions of individual situations. What is universal is our abilities to impose our feelings onto others, and have a sense of the suffering of others.
Makes sense right? And when looked at from this perspective, it’s not a great leap from empathetic understanding to personal morality.
“Ah” you say, “but the problem with evolution is that all plants & animals are packed with INFORMATION – the complicated instructions that co-ordinate the many processes enabling the body & brain to function. How does information get into a human psyche to manifest as truth what morals are? Or what sympathy is or empathy or intelligence? Its arrival ? Its knowing & recognising that it is what it is? You pack software into a computer, it recognises the information in it and acts accordingly.”
This comment actually came from a Facebook thread, where a person was claiming God as the reason for our Morals.
To this string of questions I say this.
There is a disconnect for many people between the idea of evolution and the state of things now, and this is because humans cannot possibly contemplate billions of years, let alone anything past a few generations of human life spans. If you were to somehow get past this inability, it all becomes much clearer.
All processes in the brain are the result of evolution over billions of years. Billions of years, not thousands. Most plants and animals and bacteria are born with small imperfection in them, or mutations. The ones with large mutations perish, and the ones with small unnoticeable ones continue to flourish. The “software” we have in our brains is a combination of evolved mechanisms, such as self-preservation, and social and cultural impositions, such as being taught not to park in a “no-standing” zone. Morality, as a construct will not arise in isolation, we impose it upon each other via social interaction and by education. Everything evolves from something, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
So using evolutionary theory, all your questions are answered, as long as we keep in mind that every feeling and thought we have as highly complex and intelligent animals would once upon a time have been a slightly simpler, or even a very basic thought/impulse/reaction.
Just because something like empathy is complex, and it forms the basis of our societies, doesn’t mean that historically, somewhere along the line, there was an animal, one of our own ancestors, who had slightly less of this feeling of empathy. “The Golden Rule” was not invented in the bible, but is a basic tendency we must adhere to if we are to survive. People recognised this long before any of the “God books” were written, and we carry this with us to this day, because a combination of our genes and our education dictates that this is the right way to go. There is nothing “otherworldly” or miraculous about it.
Unfortunately, I cannot account for other people’s inability to understand theories of evolution and sociology. All I can do is try to explain it.
The Moral Naturalists